However, as painful as they were to watch, we did learn a lot from the last three debates. First, about the candidates. We learned that Michele Bachmann’s even crazier than we thought. That Rick Perry’s not ready for primetime. And that Mitt Romney, while not very exciting, is a lot stronger candidate than he was four years ago.
But that’s only part of the story. Whatever we learned about who was on stage, we learned even more about who was in the audience. If they represent a true cross-section of the Republican Party, we’re in trouble. They’re the kind of people who, if they saw somebody standing on the ledge of a building about to commit suicide, wouldn’t call the police. Instead, they’d holler: “Jump!” And cheer when he did.
Don’t believe it? Look what happened at the Reagan Library. Moderator Brian Williams began a question to Rick Perry by noting that, as governor of Texas, he had presided over the execution of 234 people (now 235). The audience erupted in applause.
The following week in Tampa, Wolf Blitzer pressed Ron Paul, who preaches that government has no role in health care, on what should happen to a man who had no health insurance but needed emergency care. Should we just let him die? The audience gleefully shouted out: “Yes!”
And in Orlando, the biggest disgrace of all. When an American soldier on duty in Iraq identified himself as a gay man and asked the candidates what they planned to do about the recently canceled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, several members of the audience actually booed him. And, what’s even more shocking, not one of the candidates on stage spoke up to condemn the boorish audience behavior or disassociate themselves from it.
Nor did any of the three moderators. Fox anchor Bret Baier, in fact, dismissed the boos as coming from only two or three people, as if that made it any more acceptable to demean a soldier wearing the uniform. And co-host Megyn Kelly piously insisted it wasn’t her job. “Those attending these debates are entitled to their point of view,” she told her television audience. “And in this anchor’s view, it is not the panelist’s role to correct those views or chastise them who hold them.”
Kelly is dead wrong. She blew it. So did Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. Imagine Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw or Jim Lehrer just sitting there and saying nothing when members of the audience, no matter how many or how few, booed an active-duty member of the military. Never would have happened. The proper response, from panelist or candidate, would have been to turn to the audience and say simply: “Please. Whether you agree with his question or not, this man is a member of our military, serving our country in Iraq, and he deserves your respect.”
Megyn Kelly should have taken a lesson from John McCain, who faced a similar situation at a 2008 campaign rally. When a woman started her question with the comment “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not, uh, he’s an Arab,” McCain cut her off, told her she was wrong, and reminded his audience that Obama was “a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
And if you think Republicans learned anything from watching those three audiences, you’re wrong. When Chris Christie spoke at the Reagan Library on Sept. 27, he saluted Reagan for firing thousands of air traffic controllers, back in 1981. Again, the audience cheered. Good news! More government employees out of work!
Watching the last three debates, it made me yearn for the good old days. Remember? When the first thing the moderator did was turn to the crowd and remind them that there was to be no audience reaction. No laughter, no cheers, no groans, no boos.
Everybody would benefit from going back to that rule. It’d be better for the candidates. It’d be better for those watching at home. And it’d be better for the Republican Party, too. Because the whole world wouldn’t see what a rude, intolerant, heartless bunch of people today’s Republicans are.
Bill Press is host of a nationally syndicated radio show.